New York

Chuck Close

Pace | 32 East 57th Street

Chuck Close’s recent colossal portraits are a testament to painting’s continued vitality. The brilliance and appeal of their lushly painted surfaces are not indicative of a post–Whitney Biennial trauma—a swing of the pendulum of artistic style and taste away from “political” art as if in protest—rather, they suggest that painting is still capable of acting on the spectator.

Using his now-familiar method of transposing photographic portraits onto canvas with a polychromatic grid, Close’s recent paintings have matured to the extent that each two-inch square is an independent abstract painting worthy of esthetic scrutiny. What we gain from looking at these portraits of well-established artists (John Chamberlain, Janet Fish, Kiki Smith) is not the satisfaction of recognizing John, 1992, Janet, 1992, or Kiki, 1993, but of finding ourselves captive to the subtle nuances and shifting textures that transform the images before our eyes as we pass them, stop, move closer, or further away. In time, we find ourselves dancing with each portrait, responding with slight bodily shifts to the change in focus of the colossal heads. As we become increasingly involved in a physical interaction with the paintings, we sense that Close uses the portrait as a tool to project our perceptions and experiences back onto us.

What is striking about Close’s recent works is their visual complexity. Our bodies are like a kaleidoscope, changing the image with every movement. Looking at these portraits up close is like looking into a pool of roses; if we step back, the face of a man or woman crystallizes; at other distances the image is no longer clear, as if it were buried under soft ripples of water; and when seen from across the room, the image is transformed, surprisingly, into a focused depiction of a specific individual. Close’s portraits open up the elusive present, creating a temporary autonomous zone in which to examine questions of specularity and personal experience that sidestep ideological debates.

Kirby Gookin